A MATTER OF STYLE

CALIFORNIA WINES
IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT

by Peter Dean

Image by Peter Dean

Asking a room full of wine experts to blind-taste your wines is a brave move, even more so if they are tasted alongside other world-class wines. I have seen it go wrong, where every wine, but the intended was picked out as a preferred option.

Cue withering looks between winemaker, importer and marketing team.

When it goes right, however, it is a fresh approach to wine tasting, giving powerful reference points to the taster and displaying supreme confidence from the winemakers.

It is a thrown gauntlet, if you will. One that says with a swagger ‘I think my wine is as good as any in the world, if not better…. see what you think.’

It was this spirit, of course, that was central to the landmark Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976, which effectively put California wine on the map. This was where some of the world’s top wine critics picked Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon as best in class, when blind-tasted against classic French wines.

I love blind tasting because, more than any other discipline, it gets you to focus entirely on what is in the glass.

In a blind-tasting workshop called A Matter of Style – California Wines in a Global Context, which took place during the California Wine Summit in May 2017, two of America’s top master sommeliers, Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp, challenged a group of 30 of us to see if we could spot which wine was Californian, when tasted alongside other world-class wines.

There were 15 wines in all – five flights of three – and we were asked to compare and contrast the styles of the Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Syrah which had been selected from classic Old World, New World and Californian wine producers.

I love blind tasting because, more than any other discipline, it gets you to focus entirely on what is in the glass. It is also blindingly difficult. Even though our master sommeliers had picked the wines (but didn’t know in which order they were going to be served in) they did get some wrong.

There isn’t enough space or time to go into all of the detail behind the tasting, suffice to say that some people preferred different wines from one another – wine appreciation is a matter of taste, after all, and not just a matter of style. So, with the three Syrah wines, for example, most people preferred the Californian Wind Gap from the Sonoma Coast over the classic, young Cornas.

Image by Peter Dean

The other observation was that it was never obvious which wines were Californian, from Old World wine producers nor indeed from other New World wine estates, which proved the point Kruth and Stamp were trying to make – that Californian wine can sit quite happily on the world stage and rub shoulders with the very best.

If there was a note of defensive pride about this exercise, then there needs to be. The truth of the matter is that Californian wine has changed dramatically, particularly in the last decade, and not every wine lover has given it the re-appraisal it so thoroughly deserves.

It is true that, following the Judgement of Paris many Californian wineries started chasing critic scores and big flavour concentration in their wines more than balance and freshness. This has changed and those ‘icon’ producers have been joined by a new breed of winemaker, like the ones chosen by Kruth and Stamp – Tatomer, Ryme, Sandford & Benedict, Ceritas and Wind Gap – who are more interested in making wines that have higher acidity, a greater expression of terroir and more moderate alcohol levels.

The evidence was there for all to see, and taste, and not just in the Matter of Style blind tasting.

Throughout the California Wines Summit it was clear that there is huge diversity in regional and winemaker styles at work in the Golden State, and there is world class quality. In fact, I would venture to say that there has never been a better time to drink Californian wine.

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What's On

WHAT'S  ON

The California Wine Institute will be joined by importers and wineries in London and Dublin at their annual tastings this September.  These two events will feature over 1,000 extraordinary wines from the length of California with ground-breaking seminars, free-pour tastings and Californian style cuisine to excite your taste buds.  Come and enjoy Californian hospitality at its best.

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